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Offensive Asian comments: UK is 'multicultural' but doesn't get culture

London: Britain’s attorney-general has joined a long list of top British politicians to face humiliation for making sweeping remarks about Asian immigrants, mostly out of ignorance about their cultural practices.

Dominic Grieve, a soft-spoken and widely respected patrician Tory figure, has been forced to apologise to his South Asian constituents after effectively calling them corrupt and being in hock to a culture of favouritism; or what he clumsily described as a “favour culture’’.

His remarks in an interview to The Daily Telegraph, which duly splashed them on the front page (“Corruption rife in the Pakistani community, says minister”), provoked a storm of protest. He was accused of racism and fanning xenophobia to appease anti-immigrant Tory voters.

Here’s a flavour of what he said about the large South Asian community in his constituency of Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire:

Dominic Grieve: Reuters

Dominic Grieve: Reuters

“I can see many of them have come because of the opportunities that they get. But they also come from societies where they have been brought up to believe you can only get certain things through a favour culture. One of the things you have to make absolutely clear is that that is not the case and it’s not acceptable.”

He singled out a case of postal ballot fraud in 2008, involving an Asian Tory candidate, to back his argument, but as Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the anti-extremism think-tank Ramadhan Foundation, pointed out that case was “dealt with by the courts and had not produced any further evidence of an endemic problem with corruption’’.

As Mr Grieve’s own party MPs joined Opposition Labour figures to accuse him of “dividing’’ communities, he issued a public apology saying, "I'm sorry if I have caused any offence."

As apologies go, it fitted a pattern whereby politicians suddenly turn contrite to limit the fallout of their ill-considered actions. And everyone pretends that the issue has gone away. But it never does. Mr Grieve’s pro forma apology will not change his perception of Asian immigrants which arises from the all-too-familiar tendency to view all cultures through the prism of supposedly superior British “values’’.

While it is true that corruption is more widespread among certain ethnic minority groups than in indigenous British community, it is wrong to conflate the so-called “favour culture’’ with corruption which involves fraud, deception and dubious financial transaction.

Mr Grieve’s perception arises from a cultural misunderstanding of the Asian practice of using connections to get work done without necessarily giving or taking a bribe. It is the same sort of cultural misreading that has led the British government to confuse arranged marriages with forced marriages; and to see every hijab-wearing woman as a victim of oppression.

As those of us who are familiar with it either as its beneficiary or victim, the “favour culture’’ is nothing like the sinister conspiracy that the attorney-general made out to be.

Had Mr Grieve bothered to check out with his Asian constituents before stepping into the cultural minefield that Britain’s Asian diaspora is, he would have learnt that the “favour culture’’ is not so much about greasy backroom deals as about mutual favours done in kind.

A system of quid pro quo, it operates through friendly nods and winks among people connected directly or indirectly through family links, friendships, religious or caste solidarity, political affiliations-- and, of course, the old school tie that the British elite itself routinely deploys.

Mr Grieve might legitimately want to know how it all started. Apart from the fact that Asian societies are more closely knit along religious/caste lines, the “favour culture’’ has its roots in an economy of shortages that Asian countries suffered until well into the 1980s when everything was in short supply- school places, housing, jobs, telephone lines, white goods, even food.

With too many people chasing the same things and red tape to boot only the well-connected were able to get what they wanted. This forced ordinary people into a situation where they had to find short-cuts in order to simply get on with their lives. It was a survival trick, Mr Grieve.

That culture still persists, and though many of the shortages no longer exist the network of cronies and patrons has become even more deeply entrenched. People have developed an addiction to “favour culture’’ as they find it easier to pick up the phone and talk to the right person to get a job done rather than going through the normal channel. And, now they have brought this culture to Britain.

So, good on Mr Grieve for highlighting it, but it is not “corruption’’ in the dirty sense of the word he implied. Britain may have become admirably multicultural but there is little understanding of other cultures. And it shows up once too often.

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